The History Of Vampires
by Bill Knell
Most people think that the Vampire legend began with Vlad The Impaler, but it goes back much further then that! I. It Started With Blood
The Vampire persona has evolved from many true and untrue facts, legends and myths. At various times vampires, real and imagined, have been considered fiends, supernatural beings, shape-shifters, mentally-disturbed deviants, satanic servants and fetish followers. But, it all began and still revolves around a taste for blood!
Contrary to the popular belief that Vampire history, stories and legends began with Vlad the Impaler, they go back much further than that. Many ancient societies worshipped blood thirty gods. This caused people to begin to associate blood with divinity, leading to the development of the early vampire cults. Regardless of the spiritual value, some people have always had a desire to drink blood and the reasons are as varied as the practitioners. In some societies the practice was accepted, as in ancient Egypt. But in others, vampirism was considered deviant behavior and condemned.
In Africa, most civilizations and tribes greatly feared vampirism. The fear was eventually turned into legend as people began to believe vampires were evil spirits that would come in the night to drink blood, kill livestock and steal children. Archeological evidence shows that fetishes, in the form of doll-house sized huts, were built as a protection against them. Some modern African tribal medicine men still hold to this belief and continue to build the fetishes in the same way that their ancestors did.
During the glory days of Rome, vampire cults abounded. Roman citizens, mostly females, began to believe in the concept delivered to them by captured peoples that drinking the blood of fertile females would cure the infertile. Likewise, for males, blood drinking was a way to become more potent. It wasn't long before blood drinking cult members started to get sick and spread their sicknesses to others. Though it's doubtful that these people understood much of anything about the diseases transmitted through blood, Roman physicians did see a connection between blood drinking and the spread of sickness. Eventually, the Roman government moved against the cults and outlawed the practice.
Some members of vampire cults refused to stop drinking each other's blood and continued to meet in secret, despite the physical dangers and threats of severe punishment. When this was discovered and sickness continued to spread, the Roman government dispatched paid assassins to hunt down and kill the renegade blood drinkers. Because they were paid by the number of cult members they killed, these early vampire hunters became legendary. Seeking to get rich from their trade, there is no doubt that these "pay per kill" assassins took the lives of as many innocent people as they did cult members.
The weapon of choice for the Roman vampire hunters was a small, easily hidden dagger. This allowed them to infiltrate the secret cult meetings and then attack without warning. The daggers were highly ornate leaving the Roman public with the impression that the assassins were on a divine mission. The handles were in the shape of a cross and looked very much like any ornate, modern crucifix! In an attempt to scare off the government sanctioned assassins, cult members began to spread stories designed to frighten their trackers. They claimed that drinking blood gave them the ability to change into fierce animals and devour any attackers.
Thanks to the meticulous records kept by Romans and Egyptians, as well as the traditions passed orally by the Africans, vampire legends were well known on local and international levels by the arrival of the middle ages. Had it not been for the proliferation of plague and other pestilences during that time, vampirism probably would have re-emerged as a popular fad. Even so, some drawings in religious books of the period seem to suggest that blood drinking cults continued to exist. Devils, demons and human servants of Satan were often portrayed as committing unspeakable acts, including the sucking of blood from other humans and animals. One may assume that these portrayals were not just shadows of the past or complete figments of over zealous imaginations.
As explorers from the Old World began to visit the New World, the vampire legend took on a new and frightening form. Spanish explorers traveled to the Americas in search of gold and other treasures. Although dreaded by the native peoples living there, the Conquistadors themselves began to fall prey to an unknown and terrifying enemy.
In an attempt to escape the pervasive heat, humidity, bugs, snakes, hostile peoples and monsoon-like rains of the South American jungles and rain forests, the Spaniards would take refuge in caves at night whenever these could be found. It wasn't long before a strange disease began to claim the sanity and lives of the conquering army. The only thing noticed about those who became ill was that they had strange bite marks on their bodies.
The sick moved quickly towards death and a terrible fear settled in among the Spaniards. The source of the bite was finally discovered when those on late night guard duty watched in horror as bats gently attached themselves to members of the sleeping army. With no real understanding of rabies or how it was spread, the Spaniards just assumed that loss of blood was the cause of death. They believed that the bats were killing the men by feeding on the same subjects night after night until they were drained of blood! Though staying out of caves stopped most of the attacks, some were still bitten.
By the time Vlad the Impaler came along, the vampire legend had already been well established. His contribution to the history of vampires was largely due to Bram Stoker's fictional story of Dracula. Already known as a rabid, blood thirsty killer, Dracula suddenly became a virtually unstoppable, supernatural force of evil.
Bram Stoker's 1897 book, Dracula, was inspired by existing vampire legends and the brutal acts of a legendary tyrant. Stoker found the name Dracula in a book on the history of Wallachia. The name was associated with a 15th century Transylvanian despot known as Vlad the Impaler, also called "Vlad Dracul," which means "the devil" in Romanian. Impaling was the gruesome practice of forcing a long wooden spear through the body until the victim gradually dies. Dracula favored impaling as a form of execution and a scare tactic used to instill fear in his enemies. Vlad hated non-Christians, making it a policy to kill any non-practicing residents under his authority. Fearing for their lives, his subjects placed crosses on their front lawns and doorways to keep Dracula at bay.
Transylvanian traditions were also a source of great inspiration for Bram Stoker. They believed in what were called "strigoi" (the undead) who would walk the earth because they were improperly buried or had lived an evil life. Like vampires, they would stalk and kill humans. Stopping them meant driving a stake through their heart. They would then be placed in a coffin where the same stake was driven through the coffin and into the ground. That was the only procedure known to keep the undead in the ground where they belonged.
Although the marriage of fact, fiction and folktales that came together in Bram Stoker's Dracula forever changed and deluded original traditions and beliefs about vampires, it also created a huge amount of interest in them. More then a few people read the novel believing it to be a true story, thus adding to the legend. Younger readers were especially susceptible to the suspense and fear created by the main character. Many would place crosses all over their rooms and nail windows shut!
Several attempts were made to turn the novel into a stage play, but known were financially successful until Bela Lugosi entered the picture. Though legend has it that Bela initially wanted nothing to do with the project, Dracula became the role of his lifetime. Each night an ambulance was parked outside the Broadway theater where Dracula was performed, and this wasn't just for publicity purposes! People would faint or get trampled as audience members tried to run out of the performance with the appearance of Bela on the stage as Dracula.
With reactions like that to the book and Broadway Play, the story was a natural for early film makers. While it is unclear who actually tried to bring Dracula to the screen first, it's certain that the 1922 silent film Nosferatu was one of the first uses of a vampire as a major character in a motion picture. In this German film, the vampire is a blood sucking fiend with no redeeming values. Realistic make-up and great special effects make Nosferatu still worth watching on video.
III. Motivated By A Thirst For Blood
Most people labeled as Vampires after being accused or convicted of a terrible crime may have had an unusual thirst or need for blood. Hungarian Countess Erzebet Bathory who lived in Vienna in the early 1600s, beat and tortured her servants and may have bathed in their blood believing it would restore her youth. Another Hungarian, Bela Kiss, murdered his wife, neighbor and up to twenty young girls in Budapest before he died while at war in 1914. The bodies were later discovered stored in metal drums, with bite marks on their necks and completely drained of blood. In 1996 a sixteen year old boy named Roderick Ferrell organized a group of Kentucky Teens into a Vampire Cult. They were all fans of the role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. The group went to Florida and murdered the parents of a former girlfriend. Ferrell was later arrested, convicted and sentenced to execution.
Not all vampire incidents are as easy to explain as the crimes committed by wannabe vampires who end up dead or arrested. One of the most puzzling of all factual vampire-related crimes and incidents is the case of the High Gate Cemetery Vampire of England. Oddly enough, it was the western section of that British Cemetery that inspired Bram Stoker in his depiction of some settings for the tale of Dracula.
During the late 1960s, several British children found a shortcut to their school through the western section of High Gate Cemetery in London. As they started using the shortcut on a daily basis in the early morning, some strange things happened. Several of the children became sick and were diagnosed as having experienced a significant loss of blood, along with unusual bite marks on their necks. At the same time, residents of the area began reporting their dogs missing.
Dog carcasses began to turn up inside and near the cemetery. Most died of blood loss and also had strange bite marks on their bodies. A number of credible witnesses reported seeing hooded figures hunched over the dogs as they were dying. An occult group dedicated to the eradication of vampires started patrolling the area, adding to the confusion and weirdness. They actually went around digging up bodies and sticking them with stakes! Needless to say, the group quickly wore out their welcome and had problems with local law enforcement. By the early 1970s, things quieted down as children stopped taking the shortcut through the cemetery and most people kept their pets indoors at night. Although the case remains unsolved, one event put a cap on the whole thing. A British Policeman on patrol just outside High Gate Cemetery one evening noticed a hooded figure bent over the body of a dog. The animal seemed to be in great distress. As the Officer approached the hooded figure, it turned to look at him. The Officer could clearly see that the hooded figure had no face! It then turned and vanished before his eyes. The dog died of a loss of blood and this is the how the Officer reported the incident. Like so many unexplained events, the case was quietly filed away.
IV. The Gothic Lifestyle
For years people have dressed up as Vampires for Halloween and other special occasions. But some never stopped! Over the past forty years more then a few people have spent a good part their lives living like vampires. For most, just dressing the part is enough. Others feel a need to actually drink or suck blood. Although dangerous in a day when blood born diseases pose such a threat to humanity, most involved in the blood drinking or sucking only participate in the fetish with one person or an exclusive group of people.
Today, people who dress like vampires as politely referred to as participating in the Gothic Lifestyle. It's an umbrella term that covers everyone including those with a blood drinking or sucking fetish. The mere fact that people are still emulating what was laid down as vampire characteristics, dress and behavior in the Dracula novel and films after so many years, indicates the strong appeal and enduring quality of the legend. Since it's publication in 1897, Dracula has never been out of print!
About the Author
A native New Yorker now living in Arizona, Bill Knell is a forty-something guy with a wealth of knowledge and experience. He's written hundreds of articles on a wide variety of subjects. A popular Speaker, Bill Knell presents seminars on a number of topics that entertain, train and teach. A popular radio and television show Guest, you've heard Bill on thousands of top-rated shows in all formats and seen him on local, national and international television programs.
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